Quantum technology is key to the next leap forward in medicine. The computing power of quantum computers is incomprehensibly high for certain types of tasks compared to even today’s supercomputers, making it possible to illustrate complex biological chains of action in an entirely new way.
The spectrum of multidisciplinarity manifests at its best in the development of quantum technology for the purposes of medicine. Specialists ranging from the fields of biological systems covered by basic research to various areas of medicine, as well as information technology and physics, are needed for successful outcomes.
Quantum algorithms and artificial intelligence serve as the technical foundation.
“They will help us predict structures, simulate molecular similarities and accurately model the binding of proteins with molecules,” says Professor Sabrina Maniscalco from the Faculty of Science, University of Helsinki.
Targeted drugs and increasingly in-depth knowledge
According to Sabrina Maniscalco, most of the scientific community estimates that it will take 10–15 years before a fault-tolerant quantum computer will be deployed. Significant and far-reaching results can be expected in, among other areas, drug development and personalised medicine.
Currently, the problems with drug development lie in uncertainties of the proper biological target and precision of the drug, its slow progress, and high costs resulting in high financial risk.
“Even through investment in drug studies has grown tenfold since the 1980’s, the number of new drugs introduced to the market has remained roughly the same. The reason is that current approaches simplify cellular biology. We are unable to predict with sufficient precision how, in the human body, potential drug molecules bind to proteins associated with specific diseases. As a result, 90% of new pharmaceuticals are effective in only half of the people treated with them,” Maniscalco notes.
According to Jari Koistinaho, Director of the Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE), quantum technology makes it possible to explore the functioning of cells and their related complex networks in a much more comprehensive manner.
“There is a lot more to the immediate environment of drug-binding receptors, such as down stream molecular pathways, other interactive proteins within the targeted cell or even in other adjacent cells, and a variety of extracellular material. In addition, genetic variation results in variation of the structure and properties of the drug-binding receptors or domains. Ultimately, all this has an impact on what the drug does and where,” Koistinaho says.
As an example, Koistinaho points to his stem cell research on schizophrenia and psychopathy, which has been ongoing for seven years, with Jari Tiihonen, Chief Physician of the Niuvanniemi Hospital in Kuopio and Professor at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. In this research, he utilises ‘mini-brains’ and brain cell models, developed by his research group, which have been grown from stem cells derived from human blood or skin cells.
“The drug currently best suited to schizophrenia was developed as far back as the 1980s, but its use was discontinued and later much limited because of adverse effects that damaged the bone marrow. In the 1990s, many pharmaceutical companies tried to develop a better drug, but so far all attempts have been fruitless – no one really understands the process by which the drug developed 40 years ago affects schizophrenia. Could it be that, for example, extracellular material as drug targets plays a significant role?”
From mice back to human biology
Murine or mouse models have been developed for research on many human diseases to investigate their causes and drug therapy options before progressing to clinical trials.
As the study of stem cells produced from human blood or skin cells and the patient-specific brain cells and mini-organs cultured from them have advanced, a fundamental problem associated with mouse models has become more evident: murine and human brains are not entirely identical in function. In spite of attempts, a perfect murine model of, for example, Alzheimer’s disease has not been established. This has slowed the progress of research.
Combining stem cell research and quantum technology could help map out in more detail the changes occurring in the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s disease and ways to influence them. However, before the quantum leap, Jari Koistinaho wishes to thoroughly examine the mini-brains grown from stem cells by his research group.
“We are continuously discussing with Sabrina Maniscalco and her Algorithmiq startup. We were already set on embarking on the deployment of quantum technology but decided to take a small time-out. First, we want to include human brain models based on stem cells that would clearly illustrate the changes taking place in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. We are already so far along that we have observed previously unnoticed features in human brain cells and the mini-brain,” Koistinaho notes.